Fort Pierce Commission unsure about providing Independence Classical Academy tree mitigation relief

FORT PIERCE – A handful of founders and backers of the Independence Classical Academy planned for South Jenkins Road begged the City Commission May 4 for relief from a costly tree mitigation bond but found that the wheels of governmental bureaucracy might move too slowly to meet their needs.

Realizing that commissioners couldn’t officially discuss relieving or waiving the approximately $270,000 fee without having it scheduled on their agenda, ICA Board Member Cathy Townsend asked commissioners to have staff schedule a formal discussion on the issue as soon as possible.

“If the bond moving forward is not put on the meeting next month in June, it’s going to prevent us from being where we need to be,” she said. “That means that the two-hundred-and-some-odd-thousand dollars is paid by the school, which means no playground [and] less teacher salaries. So, I need to ask if it’s possible to have that put on the June agenda so we can get the approval and move forward to have the opening day of our school.”

Board President Courtney Purnell then addressed commissioners, emphasizing that the school’s construction budget included nearly $120,000 for future landscaping on the property adjacent to St. Peter Evangelical Lutheran Church. If the fee were ultimately waived, the school could use the money instead to hire five additional teachers or pay for an entire elementary school curriculum set.

“We are already having to adjust our budget because our finance company fronted us startup fees to help us account for fundraising we were unable to achieve because of COVID-19,” she said. “We already gave up a playground in our plans and are trying now to raise money from a sponsor to cover the cost of adding that back in. No matter how we break it down, it is better spent on teachers and students than an ordinance compensating for a loss of trees. If the bond is called and absorbed by our lease expenses, it means a loss to our teachers and students.”

Governmental consultant Sandy Krischke said getting the discussion scheduled in June would simply get the official conversation started.

“This is a project that’s already very, very fiscally tight,” she said. “This money’s not going back into a developer’s pocket: This money just goes back to our finance company, who fronted that bond money. If the bond is called, it gets put on the backs of our children and this school.”

John Lloyd encouraged Fort Pierce commissioners to help, describing the new school opening as a sign of hope needed by a community despairing of the coronavirus outbreak.

“We just experienced what we call a pandemic, a wartime scenario with an attack on our country,” he said. “There’s a lot of anxiety out here, and we have the opportunity to alleviate some of that anxiety by providing the leadership to opening up this school – doing whatever it takes – to allow our families to begin to plan the future of our children.”

Commissioners didn’t acknowledge the requests by the public until finishing the scheduled items on their agenda. Commissioner Reginald Sessions, who’s consistently supported the school’s efforts and even suggested the city consider launching its own charter school five years ago, then asked staff their opinion on waiving the tree mitigation fee.

“It’s a church that’s funding this project, and I’m sure they’re trying to save as much as they possibly can,” he said. “What, if anything, can we do? It’s my understanding that in previous administrations, applicants were not even held to that tree mitigation fee.”

City Manager Nick Mimms then suggested the legal pathway to such a potential waiver.

“We do not have a waiver provision, but if you all direct staff to make that happen, we will make that happen,” he said.

City Attorney Pete Sweeney emphasized the need to go through the official City Code amendment process for the creation of a waiver provision in order to avoid potential legal pitfalls down the road.

“You have a requirement in the code that, for whatever reason, there was never an alternative remedy provided,” he said. “To do something without it being in the Code is problematic, because then you can do anything that’s not in the Code. That becomes a really big problem long-term I think.”

The real roadblock, Mr. Sweeney continued, would be the complicated amendment process that wouldn’t coincide with the Independence Classical Academy’s rapidly approaching deadline.

“That would be almost impossible given the timeframe that was discussed earlier by public speakers,” he explained. “It has to go to the Planning Board – that’s a requirement – and it would have to then have two readings, and we don’t even have two meetings before June. We don’t even have a Planning Board meeting in the month of May. That to me is the only truly viable, legal way to do it.”

In response to questioning by Commissioner Sessions, Planning Director Jennifer Hoffmeister insisted current City Code is tying the city’s hands because school officials failed to follow up on her initial suggestion to conduct an additional tree survey before clearing the land.

“The site was a forest, so we knew right from the beginning that it was going to cost a lot of money,” she said. “We actually went onsite trying to look at alternatives to meet that tree mitigation, perhaps preserving more trees or looking at some of those areas as preservation to offset that cost. We had also asked them to do a more extensive tree survey. We thought they were going to do that, and then the land clearing began. So that left us with nothing but what is in our Code.”

Ms. Hoffmeister also insisted it was developer’s responsibility to count the cost before beginning construction.

“First, site selection is part of your due diligence,” she added. “All these fees are in our Code. Secondly, if we continue to go this direction, then we set a precedent.”

Both Mayor Linda Hudson and Commissioner Jeremiah Johnson worried about that because they’d received phone calls complaining about the loss of trees in two other recent projects.

“I’ve been contacted by people upset about the trees that were torn down at the Dairy Queen and at the 7-11,” she said.

Commissioner Johnson concurred.

“The community expects us to follow what’s in the Code,” he said. “When Dairy Queen went in, I got 15 phone calls. 7-11 is being worked on now. I’ve gotten 10 phone calls, and it’s the exact opposite of what’s being asked tonight.”

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